Reform and revolution

Greece’s modern history is so full of promises betrayed, reforms left incomplete and wrong turns taken that one might say it is made up of cycles of neglect, efforts at reform, reaction against that reform, revolution, more reaction, and so on. Reformers almost always fail to complete what they set out to do, yet they create the point at which a later reformer will try to pick up the delicate, tattered strand of progress. Those reformers are almost always like alien beings on the Greek political scene. This may be because their obsession with changing things, rather than exploiting their power for immediate political advantage, makes them appear otherwordly. Or they may indeed be foreign imports, such as the most famous one, Count Capodistria, who was brought in at the end of the War of Independence to be Greece’s first governor after having served as the Russian czar’s foreign minister and having tried and failed to stay out of the Greek imbroglio. Every effort to change things (so as not to dignify every act with the intention of its being a reform), no matter how small, crashes against a web of vested interests that is as unfathomably complicated as it is powerful. The web of our history is rich with the dessicated exoskeletons of reforms that failed, hanging like the heads or shields of dead enemies at the gate, but also presenting examples of heroic efforts of the past, if anyone would care to assume the mantle of a fallen predecessor. That is why the biggest reforms are carried out mostly by dictatorial revolutionaries, meaning either that they are powerful characters who brook no opposition in making their sweeping changes within a reasonably democratic system (such as the late Constantine Karamanlis and, to an extent, Andreas Papandreou), or bona fide dictators, such as Ioannis Metaxas (whose achievements include the social security system as well as the ruthless elimination of political opponents) and the junta of 1967-1974, which, understanding the Greek romance with the word, obsessively referred to its paranoid putsch as the «Revolution of April 21.» Those who do not care about the political cost, either because they are riding on the wings of a myth or an unassailable parliamentary majority, or because they have usurped power and have only their own constituency (the military) to keep happy, are the ones who can take bold swipes at the tangled web that keeps the Greeks suspended in the grip of malevolent neglect. All too often, however, even the boldest revolutionary, like the more principled reformer, finds himself having to come to an arrangement with whatever powerful forces are left within that web. Which means that, at the end of any given cycle, those who pull the strings of power might have changed, but there will still be someone pulling the strings. It is as if this is a law of science that cannot be broken. Or fate. There have been greater efforts to change Greece than those that have taken place in the last six years during the Simitis government. Yet Simitis is most definitely in the rank of those who sought to change Greece from within the system, pushing reforms as far as he could without bringing on the reaction that would destroy the whole effort. And that is why it is doubly tragic to see how the forced resignation of Alekos Papadopoulos from the post of health minister shows the ways in which reform runs out of steam and the web springs back to reassert itself. When, two weeks ago, Papadopoulos said in an interview with Kathimerini that he did not care about the political cost of his reforms to the health system because he would not stand for Parliament in the next elections, he may have thought that he was making a personal statement. Perhaps he thought he would come across as a latter-day Cincinnatus, the Roman who was appointed dictator in 458 BC to wage a war, won it and resigned immediately afterward in order to retire to his farm. What Papadopoulos did not realize was that, unlike Cincinnatus, the enemy he had to fight was not a foreign invader but ranked among his own comrades. Whereas Simitis should have been overjoyed at the fact that at last he had a minister whom he could use as a kamikaze, with his eye glued to the success of his efforts, he ordered Papadopoulos to fall on his sword. On Monday, Papadopoulos said that Simitis had ordered him to resign his post and he had done so. Simitis was clearly incensed by the fact that Papadopoulos did not warn him in advance of his decision, but, as this was a personal issue that could have been seen as such if the government had chosen to, it is also clear that the prime minister’s judgment was clouded by advisers who presented Papadopoulos’s decision as a vote of no confidence in PASOK and in the political system itself. Tradition has it that people will do all they can to get into power and then do everything necessary to stay there – which all too often means doing nothing. So it was impossible to tolerate an act that overturned all that. In his interview Papadopoulos also betrayed a sense of impatience with the way his efforts to change the health system were not being evaluated responsibly but were, instead, the target of easy, hit-and-run criticism. This too, opened him up to angry condemnation from those in politics and the news media who felt they might be the target of such declarations. We are used to seeing ministers who do as little as possible when in office so as not to draw any attention to themselves. Because every action draws a negative and usually disproportionate reaction, a minister who spends his time working on his re-election with grand declarations but no deeds is likely to be popular in opinion polls. Those who attempt reforms are likely to find initial government support eroding as the protests go on, until they are replaced and the reforms diluted or discarded. (Remember how the government short-circuited early last year in the face of protests at Labor Minister Tassos Yiannitsis’s proposals to reform social security, how Simitis came close to resigning before the party gave in to his demand for an early congress, how he came out of the congress with a strong vote of support and then how he fell back on the policies of PASOK’s pre-Simitis years, with the current labor minister, Dimitris Reppas, giving away more state money while labor protests continue! If Reppas calls it reform then unionists are obliged to protest, even if workers will be getting more benefits and the anonymous taxpayer will be footing the bill.) When Simitis became prime minister in early 1996 it was apparent that here we had a different kind of Greek politician. Aides stressed that Simitis was in government to reform Greece and that, if necessary, he would be just as happy to get up and go home if he had to. Simitis himself had managed to get this image across by sitting quietly and reading a newspaper during a nailbiting runoff vote that he seemed certain to lose when PASOK’s parliamentary group voted for a new prime minister to replace Andreas Papandreou as he lay near death in a hospital. At that time, such a cool attitude was seen as proof that a new wind was blowing in Greece’s politics, and that a new generation of politicians could offer its services to the political system without acting as if the system was now their personal property. True to tradition, Simitis was seen as a foreign body in PASOK, being referred to at times as the Chinaman (for his inscrutable demeanor) or the German (because of his postgraduate education in Germany and his European orientation). But the fact that PASOK could continue without Papandreou – even choosing the candidate least like the founder but most likely to keep the party in power – suggested that, at last, Greece was entering a phase where institutions could play as big a role, if not bigger, than personalities. Now, however, a minister’s personal decision is seen as a test of the prime minister’s authority, and the latter is forced to act «decisively,» cutting off the offender’s head. This is the old style – noise without substance. Of course, great progress has been made. Greece has changed in many ways and Simitis deserves much credit for that. Somewhere along the way, though, the political system has reasserted itself and will destroy anything that threatens its survival. The system is in control. It is as if the old powers have sneaked under Simitis’s skin, taking their revenge for the way in which he and his reformers took over the old populist PASOK six years ago. Reformers may feel misunderstood and conclude that the Greeks are almost impossible to govern, as Capodistria so famously lamented before his increasingly autocratic ways ruffled enough feathers to get him assassinated in 1831. Bringing to Greek politics some life-giving seriousness, responsibility and dedication (which the Romans called gravitas and with which they ruled the world) may lead to destruction, but also to undying admiration. One of the reforms for which Papadopoulos will be remembered for his term as interior minister was the reorganization of myriad communities into larger, more practical municipalities that could employ the mechanisms to make the best use of EU funding. The project raised innumerable protests across the country, where every village thought that it was too good to be united with its closest neighbors. Despite the protests, the project went ahead and is now an integral part of Greece. It was named the Capodistria Plan.

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